Northbound, Southbound, Flip-Flop: The Basics of Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiking Routes

One of the most important decisions thru-hikers need to make before starting their adventure is what Appalachian Trail thru-hiking route they want to take. This decision can majorly affect the way a hiker will experience the AT both physically, mentally, and socially. There are a lot of ways to tackle this 2,200-mile monster, so here are some things for hikers to consider when weighing the options.

Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiking Routes

Northbound (NOBO)

appalachian trail thru-hiking routes

The Southern Terminus of the AT atop Springer Mountain.

A northbound hike, often referred to simply as NOBO, is easily the most popular choice for most A.T. thru-hikers. Northbound hikers start their adventure at the AT’s Southern Terminus on Springer Mountain and hike north toward the Northern Terminus atop Mount Katahdin in one continuous trip.

The popularity of northbound hikes has resulted in crowded trail conditions. Approximately 85% of all hikers and over ten times the number of SOBOs start their AT hike heading north. While this may benefit the social experience of the trail for some it comes at the cost of other complications. Such a large influx of hikers at the same time each year is beginning to stress and damage the trail and its surrounding environment in the South. As a result, it is recommended by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and many conservationists for hikers, if at all possible, to consider alternate options to heading NOBO.

When to Start

Northbound hikers typically start in late March or early April ending their hike between late August and early October. In recent years the most popular start dates have been March 1, March 15, and April 1. It is highly recommended to avoid starting on or near these dates to help alleviate crowding on the trail.

Considerations

  • Starting at Springer Mountain is mentally, physically, and logistically simpler than starting at Mount Katahdin.
  • Hike ends at Mount Katahdin, considered the toughest climb on the AT while also being considered one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful.
  • Shelters and campsites will often be overcrowded during the first few hundred miles.
  • Higher likelihood of exposure to norovirus and similarly transmitted illnesses due to crowded conditions.
  • Can expect to hike in winter conditions during the first month of their hike. The high southern mountains in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and southern Virginia can still experience freezing temperatures and deep snow as late as April. Northbound hikers must be prepared to carry winter gear suitable for such conditions for around their first 500 miles on trail.
  • Often hot and humid weather conditions in the mid-Atlantic states. Also prime mosquito season.
  • Can expect to hike in comfortable weather conditions in Southern New England, but with cooler conditions returning in New Hampshire and Maine toward September and October.

Further Reading

How to Get To Springer Mountain

What to do About Appalachian Trail Overcrowding

Tips for Being Greener on Your Thru-Hike

Southbound (SOBO)

Northern Terminus of the AT atop Mount Katahdin.

Hiking southbound on the AT, also known as hiking SOBO, is the antithesis of a northbound hike. Southbound hikers start their adventure at the AT’s Northern Terminus atop Mount Katahdin and hike south toward the Southern Terminus on Springer Mountain in one continuous journey.

Undergoing a southbound hike is less popular as it requires hikers to start their journey with the most difficult terrain. Hikers start with the hardest climb on the trail with Mount Katahdin, moving on to the remote 100-Mile Wilderness followed by the challenges of Southern Maine and the White Mountains. For many newbie backpackers this makes for quite the tall order and as a result southbound ventures are only recommended for experienced backpackers. Also, some people are not as excited by the idea of ending their hike upon Springer Mountain rather than Mount Katahdin, but that is entirely subjective. However, for those willing to undertake the challenge there are still beneficial reasons for choosing to hike southbound on the AT.

When to Start

Southbound hikers typically start in June or early July, ideally ending their hike in November or December.

Considerations

  • Springer Mountain may provide a less dramatic conclusion than Mount Katahdin.
  • Fall colors are in full swing by the time hikers reach Virginia and the southern Appalachians
  • Fewer hikers attempt a southbound hike each year. Encounters with other hikers will be less frequent. However, this means campsites and shelters are less crowded.
  • May still experience high heat and humidity through parts of the mid-Atlantic.
  • Mount Katahdin through New Hampshire contains some of the most difficult trail conditions. Hikers are frequently required to climb and rock scramble in their first few hundred miles on trail.
  • Heavy rains and wet weather are common during the summer months in New England. Be prepared for potentially muddy trail conditions and high stream crossings.
  • Black flies can be a nuisance throughout June and early July in the north.
  • Required to hike through hunting season in the southern states, starting as early as October.
  • As November approaches hikers may experience cold weather and snow in the southern Appalachians.

Further Reading

How to Get to Katadin

SOBO Step I: Getting Through the 100-Mile Wilderness

Why Go SOBO: Perks to Going Against the Flow

Flip-Flop and Other Alternative Routes

appalachian trail thru-hiking routes
Because of the problematic crowding for northbound hikes coupled with the extreme starting difficulty of hiking southbound, an increasing number of AT hikers seek out alternative itineraries for their adventure. Carrying names like the “Flip Flop,” the “Head Start,” and the “Leap Frog,” alternative hikes are becoming popular choices as they allow more flexibility in starting and ending dates along with many other benefits. In some ways it is a “best of both worlds” approach to hiking the Appalachian Trail.

When to Start

There are many ways to construct a flip-flop hike, which the ATC outlines in fantastic detail. One of the most common examples has hikers starting near the AT halfway point in Harpers Ferry during May, then hiking north and reaching Katahdin by August or September. Hikers then return to Harpers Ferry and hike south, intending to end their hike on Springer Mountain by November or December.

Considerations

  • Allows hikers to start off with the easiest terrain the trail has to offer with Maryland and Southern Pennsylvania.
  • Trail crowding is a nonissue.
  • Hikers can get through the mid-Atlantic states before peak summer temperatures arrive.
  • Pleasant hiking temperatures for the White Mountains in July.
  • Encounter early-bird NOBO hikers during the first half of the hike and end your hike with SOBOs.
  • Miss peak mosquito season in the mid-Atlantic and black fly season in Maine.
  • Fall colors are in full swing by the time hikers reach Virginia and the southern Appalachians.
  • Required to hike through hunting season in the southern states, starting as early as October.
  • As November approaches hikers may experience cold weather and snow in the southern Appalachians.

Further Reading

Appalachian Trail Flip-Flop Thru-Hike Gear

Alternative Thru-Hikes on the Appalachian Trail

10 Reasons You’ll Love a Flip-Flop Thru-Hike

 

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Comments 2

  • TBR : Jan 29th

    If I were to tackle the trail nowadays, I would avoid the Springer Mountain herd of March and April and do some version of a flip-flop.

    It seems a flip-flop gives the best of both worlds. Especially appealing is autumn in the Southern Appalachians … ideal.

    Reply
    • Joby : Feb 24th

      Agreed. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do!

      Reply

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